By David Weiner
Illustration by Giacomo Bagnara
New York may be the city that never sleeps, but every year come Christmas, it takes a brief nap.
Sure there are thousands of tourists ambling through midtown and SoHo, walking four-abreast and idly blocking street corners with their oversized shopping bags and unnecessarily puffy coats. But in the parts of the city where normal people lead normal lives, it’s a ghost town.
Most everyone in New York comes from somewhere else. And while many spend every day trying to prove that, after X amount of years, they are bonafide New Yorkers, the facade is pierced every December when they pack their bags and head home — their real homes — for the holidays. By plane, train and automobile, they ooze out of the city, some by cover of night, some by the winter’s low morning light.
What’s left behind is a small cadre of holdouts and hardcore inhabitants. Those of us who grew up here and can call no other place home, those of us who choose to stay, likely to the chagrin of family somewhere else, and those of us who escaped to here and can’t go back to the place from which they fled. For a few days a year, the city feels, dare I say, spacious.
Now don’t get me wrong, one of the things I love most about New York is its constant hum. The steady movement of too many people in too tight a space is the lifeblood of the city, and that should never change. But for a few days a year, the calm of an otherwise teeming city is a sight to behold.
I’m of the ilk who grew up here and can’t claim anywhere else as home. My entire family is a subway ride one direction or another away. But on Christmas, even they tend to decamp; my parents upstate or beyond, my brother to his in-laws. And I don’t blame them. I’m sure they have lovely times, but I wouldn’t trade places with them for the world.
Perhaps being alone for the holidays would bother some others a bit more, but in case you couldn’t tell from my painfully Jewish last name, Christmas itself is not exactly the biggest thing in my life. Being alone on a day meant to be celebrated with family doesn’t fly in the face of tradition or personal history. It’s just another day.
Besides, while in this Instagram-ized world it’s easy to think that everyone heads home to their perfect families with perfect sweaters and perfect ornaments and the perfect amount of snow, we all know the reality behind the scenes. Thankfully aside from the Vaselined-lens of Instagram, there’s the harsh lens of Twitter, where people detail the horrors of being home for the holidays with their politically-opposed uncles, nosy aunts, and “hot cousins” (seriously, look it up).
The only thing I’m truly missing out on is family dogs, because let’s be honest, there’s nothing like a good family dog.
Now, one would think the solitude people often find unnerving in New York would be amplified by the emptiness (and lack of family dogs), but the opposite seems to hold true. Rather, the city takes on the same small-town feel I imagine everyone else returns home to.
The pace slows to an unrecognizable crawl. Bodega conversations get personal. Delivery guys ride at normal speeds. Restaurants remain a quarter-filled, allowing what few patrons are there to linger longer. An empty train car doesn’t even necessarily mean someone’s shat in it; crazily enough, it could just be … empty.
And the parking. Oh, the parking. Spots as far as the eye can see. The city becomes a suburb of itself where you can drive everywhere and not worry about circling the block for 30 minutes hoping to find a space to squeeze into. It’s terrible for the environment, but for a few days, it’s a driver’s heaven.
But then, like clockwork, all the deserters slowly return, keen to get home before New Year’s Eve.
Apartments that sat in darkness for days once again brim with light. Barely used Christmas trees turn up on sidewalks by the dozen. Lines form at ATMs, and taxis become scarce. The silence is broken, the pace quickens, and once again New York is New York, awoken from the briefest of slumbers.